Wednesday, 28 September 2016

World Tour

l-r: Bil3aX, Langtunes, Sonita
Week 4: The Middle East

This is one of the trickiest parts of our journey. The Middle East is an extremely volatile area, and our first venture into the region is to one of the most disputed spots of all. The State of Palestine has no definitive boundaries, much of it occupied by Israel. It has two distinct territories - the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Getting into Palestine (in this case from Kenya, our previous stop) is very difficult given that there are currently no active airports. We have to fly 2257 miles to Tel Aviv in Israel, then drive for a couple of hours, crossing into Palestine with all the diplomatic wrangling that may well involve.


Decades of political struggles and conflict will inevitably be reflected in the nation's culture, and rock music is never going to shy away from such issues. Bil3aX hail from Ramallah in the West Bank and were formed by university students Faris Shomali and Gassan Sawalhi. Musically, they fuse all kinds of things together - rock, blues, reggae and more traditional folk music from the region. Their debut album '12 Richter' which came out about a year or so ago, tackles what the band describes as "contradictions on an Arab level." Zilzal is a track from the album that reeks of punk rebelliousness, reminiscent of the Slits in places, though there are clear Eastern influences in there too.


From Ramallah, we need to get to Iran. However, that's not easy either. We could go via Jordan, and fly from its capital Amman, but while geographically close to Ramallah, demographically it's a long-winded 4 and a half hour road trip heading west, then north, then east and finally south, almost a complete circle. I'm more inclined to return to Tel Aviv and fly directly to Tehran.

Now, the West's view of Iran is one of religious fanaticism, ruled by an aggressive, anti-Western regime that supports terrorism and Islamic extremism. Much of that is, of course, largely false. That hasn't stopped the average person (read: 'idiot') in the west from believing every word. But Iran isn't exactly liberal. On the contrary, rock music is deemed to be un-Islamic and brandishing an electric guitar is an offence. Despite this, rock music does exist.

Bands like Langtunes have to play in secret and use anonymous proxy servers to upload their music to the internet. Discretion is the key. That hasn't stopped them recording and playing though, and in 2014 they released their debut album 'Teherantor' and toured Europe. They fuse electronics with their guitars and sing in English. There's not a great deal of Middle Eastern influence in there, suggesting that they have had more than just a little access to Western music. It's exactly the sort of thing that would go down very well over here.




Finally for this week, a hefty 13 hour journey by car covering more than 1200km, from Tehran to west Afghanistan, home to a remarkable young woman called Sonita Alizadeh. She grew up in Herat province under the Taliban. Aged just 10, her family began making plans to sell her into marriage. Before this came to fruition, the family fled to Iran to escape the Taliban. It was here Sonita learned to read and write and became exposed to rap music, especially Eminen and Iranian singer Yas.

After winning a songwriting competition aged just 15, her mother, now back in Afghanistan, made her intention known that she was planning to sell Sonita to a man in order to raise a dowry Sonita's brother needed to buy a bride himself. This prompted Sonita to write about her feelings in the form of rap music. Initially keeping her lyrics secret from her family, she ended up recording Brides For Sale, an emotionally powerful song about the plight of child brides. A video was shot and uploaded to You Tube. Sonita became an overnight sensation.



Following that extraordinary debut, Sonita continued to write highly-charged songs about life in Afghanistan and became a campaigner for women's rights. She was offered a scholarship to study in the US where she currently resides. In November of last year, a documentary, 'Sonita', was premiered at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam, where it was the run-away winner of the coveted Audience Prize.

Afghanistan is a deeply troubled country, and so it shall remain for many years to come. In Sonita Alizadeh, however, we see the green shoots of hope for all those caught up in such adversity across the globe. Another example of music uniting the world.



And here's an interview with Sonita herself in which she tells her story and her introduction to rap music:



Monday, 26 September 2016

"Sometimes the same is different..."

This was going to be a much longer post about Queens Of The Stone Age (akin to my previous ones about Teenage Fanclub and The Raveonettes), but I think I've been posting too many large articles embedded with multiple You Tube clips and it's causing the pages to take longer to load. So instead, here's one of the tracks it was going to feature.

Originally recorded by Josh Homme's Desert Sessions side project featuring Polly Harvey, I Wanna Make It Wit Chu appeared on 2003's 'Volume 9' EP (later issued on the album 'Desert Sessions 9 & 10'). Homme often revisited Desert Sessions tracks when making QotSA albums, and lo and behold, a newly recorded version (without our Pol, and now titled simply Make It Wit Chu) was included on 2007's 'Era Vulgaris'.

Good groove to this one, one of my faves for sure.


Soundtrack:

And here's a live clip from Jools from 2003:




Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Genius Of Nick Cave

#17: The Ship Song

It is written in some sacred text or other that "Thou shalt not omit The Ship Song from any Nick Cave rundown." So here I am honouring that commandment. This is a song that could one day become the official Australian National Anthem. It has already been covered by a veritable who's who of antipodean talent over the year, as well as a fair few notables from further afield. It's an undeniably wonderful song, and its video perhaps the cutest ever made. Even the Harvey/Bargeld/Powers backing vocal line-up makes me smile, I don't know why...



Wednesday, 21 September 2016

World Tour

clockwise from top left: Mbongwana Star, Malawi Mouse Boys, Dove Slimme, The Parlotones
Week 3: Central, South and East Africa

After last week's epic road trip, I fancy a couple of flights this week. We are after all travelling a very long way. First, from Bamako in Mali to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Formerly known as Zaire, DR Congo is huge. Like, really, really massive. It's the second largest country in Africa (the fourth largest by population) and the eleventh largest in the world. You can fit 11 Great Britains into DR Congo and still have a bit of space left over for a few Northern Irelands. We are talking BIG here.


Its capital Kinshasa is located in the south west of the country near the south east border of Congo. Last year, an album called 'From Kinshasa' was released by a band called Mbongwana Star and it is rather excellent. While primarily a rock band, 'From Kinshasa' has a real electronic feel to it, enhancing the groove and rhythms of the songs. Live, they're rawer, more organic. But as The Swede pointed out recently, they are also pretty phenomenal. 'From Kinshasa' is a fascinating record and rather addictive too.




Back on the plane, heading for Johannesburg. Now with South Africa being the most westernised of African nations, you would think it has a thriving pop music scene. And you'd be right, of course. South Africa is rich with diverse cultures and with it as varied a music scene as you could wish to have.

During my hunt for a South African act to sweep me off my feet, I came across this track and video by a band called The Parlotones. Now this lot are massive - and I mean MASSIVE - in their native homeland, having enjoyed number one singles and albums and goodness knows how many awards. And yet, I'd never come across them before. They certainly haven't made it into the UK, despite having released eight albums over the past 13 years. Push Me To The Floor is from their fourth album 'Stardust Galaxies' from 2009. I love it and can't think for the life of me why The Parlotones aren't household names around the world. Not very African-sounding (if you want to define it), but a great tune, and that's what matters most.





Malawi next and once again, it's by air we go, taking off from Johannesburg and landing in... wait a minute... Blantyre? Isn't that near Glasgow? This isn't a Scottish climate though. Hmm, so it seems we really are in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the word. This is a place so poor that one of its most recent musical discoveries is a group of fellas whose instruments are homemade from any old bits of scrap they can lay their hands on. They're called the Malawi Mouse Boys and they are, quite frankly, utterly utterly wonderful.

Owing to food shortages, the field mouse has become a delicacy in Malawi and the four members of the Malawi Mouse Boys used to eke out a living selling grilled mice on sticks to passersby on the highway outside of their village. They would write gospel-tinged folk songs for amusement. They were discovered by Californian producer Ian Brennan who recorded their first album live in the open air. Now the band has toured the world and released three albums, the most recent of which arrived back at the start of the summer. Yasowa Mzeru means "That's not wise" and perfectly illustrates the Malawi Mouse Boys' music and vocal harmonies. Umasiye Manga, however, is one of the most moving and powerful things you'll ever hear. Meaning "My loneliness", it was written by singer Joseph Nekwankwa about the death of his mother when he was just a boy. That is genuine sobbing you hear at the end.

Both these tracks are from the group's most recent record 'Forever Is 4 You' and is perhaps my favourite and most remarkable find of the year.



Here's some footage of the Malawi Mouse Boys around the time of their second album in 2014. I'm not sure what I love most about it - the makeshift drum kit and its ingenious hi-hat, or the fact that one of the band members is wearing a Wonder Stuff t-shirt...



Our final stop in Africa is Kenya and we're going by road. It's quite a drive from Malawi, but we can do it (with an overnight stop in Tanzania). I understand there's a growing rock scene in Kenya, particularly in the south. Dove Slimme cite Paramore, Muse, John Mayer and Jimi Hendrix among their influences. To date, there's not a lot of recordings, but a new single entitled Here I Stand was released a couple months back.

Have to say I'm rather taken by their lovely singer Jillian Ndirangu, but let's keep this professional, shall we? While Dove Slimme is part of Kenya's burgeoning metal scene, don't let that influence you - you can hear their more alternative influences creeping into their sound. Leo Ni Leo is a track from the band's 2013 EP 'Cool On The Inside' and is very, very good.




So onto another continent next week, to an area where pop music is often rather difficult to find...

Monday, 19 September 2016

Memories of 2016 gigs #6

#6: Pretty Vicious
The Globe, Cardiff - 17 September 2016
Support: Fangclub, Hollow Nothing

Are we losing the art of good sound? What I mean is, are the people manning the mixing desk at gigs these days more concerned about the volume being extra loud than anyone actually being able to hear what's being played? Not for the first time this year we've left a show with our ears buzzing by an overly loud PA, only this time I have to say it was very probably one of the worst sounding gigs I've attended in more than 25 years.

Of course, the support bands suffered from the atrocious sound, but opener Hollow Nothing also suffered from a lack of songs. The most memorable thing about them was their singer, wearing a low-cut top and taking every opportunity to wiggle her assets. More interesting than anything they played, and maybe she knew it. Irish trio Fangclub were better - they had tunes - but they aren't really doing much new. Reminded me a lot of The Vines and numerous other young groups who sprang up post-grunge. I'd like to hear them with a decent sound.

If you've never heard of Pretty Vicious, I refer you to one of my Welsh Wednesday posts from earlier in the year. They're a bunch of teenagers from Merthyr Tydfil who, while not quite teetering on the edge of superstardom, they've made their way to the verge and are looking in. You WILL hear of them soon, I promise you. I was looking forward to seeing them, expecting the energy and ferocity of an early Clash gig. The audience wasn't as predominantly young as I thought it would be (though to be fair, I have a daughter older than a lot of them!), I suspect a lot of family members were in attendance. One woman (one of their mums, perhaps?) seemed to know every word of every song, and threw her drink into the mosh pit like the young folks do. Then she made some weird dance moves with her arms and did Devil Horns and completely gave herself away...

Anyway, unfortunately, Pretty Vicious also fell victim to the appalling sound. The bass was just a rumble and actually hurt my ears (a first). The guitars could barely be heard in some songs. I think the band could have been very decent, but I couldn't hear them above the noise coming out of the speakers! I could make out some of their songs - Are You Ready For Me sounded dreadful, Cave Song sounded OK. They did a version of the Stooges' I Wanna Be Your Dog which wasn't a great idea - it's not up there in the top 100 renditions I've heard before by numerous bands.

A real shame. I've no doubt Pretty Vicious are going to be huge, and I've no doubt they'll make some excellent records; they've already put some great singles out. I've also no doubt they'll be a brilliant live act as long as they get the sound they deserve. But tonight we left feeling more than a little disappointed. Hope my ears get better in time for our next show in three weeks.

MrsRobster's verdict: "I thought all their songs were rubbish except for the last three. Thank god I had my earplugs."



Soundtrack:

Saturday, 17 September 2016

The Genius Of Nick Cave

#16: Junkyard

Things started to go tits up for the Birthday Party during the recording of what would become their final studio album. 'Junkyard' was made in the midst of their drummer being fired and their bassist being jailed. Add to that Nick and Roland's creative partnership showing early signs of dissolving and you get all the ingredients for an unmitigated disaster. And yet, somehow, 'Junkyard' is something of a masterpiece. Yes, it's all over the place, angry, scary and a little bit fucked up, but it just sounded right. Big Jesus Trash Can is its highlight in my opinion, but the title track which closed the record is definitely up there. Nick growls "Honey honey honey honey..." but it sounds like "Horny horny horny horny" which might be closer to the truth. Watching (the freshly-liberated) Tracy Pew grind his hips lasciviously in this tremendous live clip, that certainly seems to fit.



Wednesday, 14 September 2016

World Tour

(l to r: Group Doueh, Tinariwen, Songhoy Blues)
Week 2: North West Africa

I'm not great with heat. I tend to flag rather quickly in the blazing sun. Nonetheless, Africa is a place that intrigues me. Let's not forget, the roots of rock and roll can be traced back to Africa. A lot of African music influenced the blues, which itself was created by the descendents of those first slaves stolen from their homeland by us westerners.


So from Spain we land in Morocco, then a bit of a drive into the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Currently under Moroccan rule, Western Sahara is not recognised as a country in its own right by many. It is the home of the Sarahawi (Saharan people) who include Group Doueh. They describe their music as "coming from an Islamic foundation, one that builds on the poetry of our language and modal scales of the traditional music from our area." They do, however, acknowledge a handful of western influences too, in particular Jimi Hendrix who band leader Salmou 'Doueh' Baamar discovered through his constant search for music at a young age.

Group Doueh's first gig outside Western Sahara must have been something of a real culture shock for a band of four Muslims: it was in an Anglican church selling beer in Brighton, Europe's gay capital! It didn't appear to phase them: "We are introducing our way of life and our music. This is a bridge from our culture to theirs. This represents our way of life and we hope our music projects that." They are signed to Seattle-based label Sublime Frequencies which has released four albums by the band. I've chosen this song from their most recent album 'Zayna Jumma' from 2012.



Next stop: Mali. Now it's actually quite difficult to get to Mali from Western Sahara, particularly if you try to enter from the north. Islamic militants control much of the north so it's not a recommended route. Air travel is limited, so it looks like good old car is the way. There is only one main road, however, and it takes us around the extreme west coastline of Western Sahara, into Mauritania and eastwards into Mali. It's a bloody long way and takes a heck of a long time, but if we're seeking out music, it's never too far or too long.

Mali has become a bit of a hip place for music in recent years. Tinariwen, a tribal band of Tuareg rebels, were first conceived in the late 70s as a loose collective playing protest music drawn from influences in Algeria, Morocco and western rock music. From day one their driving force has been  Ibrahim Ag Alhabib who continues to lead Tinariwen to this day, though most of his life has been lived in exile from his homeland. Over the years Tinariwen's acclaim has grown to global proportions and since the turn of this century, have become one of the biggest African musical exports of all time. I first heard them on the 2005 War Child charity album 'Help: A Day In The Life' on which they contributed the track Cler Achel. I loved it and have continued to follow the band ever since. Here's Emajer, a track from their 2014 album 'Emmaar'.



I can also thoroughly recommend a band from southern Algeria called Imarhan. They are also Tuaregs and one of them is related to one of Tinariwen. Algeria isn't part of our journey though,so I'm going to point you towards CC's recent post to sample the delights of Imarhan.

Chances are you've heard of Songhoy Blues, although their existence is a mere fraction of Tinariwen's. It was mainly down to Damon Albarn and his African Express project that brought Songhoy Blues to the world's attention. Nick Zinner, guitarist of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, co-produced their debut album 'Music In Exile' which came out last year and it has been a whirlwind of acclaim and success since then. With good reason - they ain't half bad. Their blend of western rock music with a traditional Malian groove is so infectious, it's something of an epidemic.

The band originally formed in northern Mali, but were forced out by the Islamists. Moving south to Bamoko and Timbuktu, they cut out a niche for themselves playing in the local scene, but adding a direct northern edge to their sound. It's unmistakably African, but with a pure rock and roll guitar-bass-drums lineup. It's simply joyous.

As well as the album, Songhoy Blues also put out an EP of covers last year, which included their own take on the Clash's Should I Stay Or Should I Go. Yes, it is as wonderful as it sounds.



And here's Songhoy Blues live on Later... With Jools Holland last year.



Africa is huge, so I reckon we need another week here. Heading south, but this time we're flying...

Monday, 12 September 2016

"The jukebox churns out songs about sex..."

I'm not sure what it was that compelled me to buy The Raveonettes' debut single back in 2002, but it might have been that boy/girl retro vibe that was big at the time - The White Stripes, The Kills, etc. To be fair, the Danish duo were more authentic in their sound than their peers, choosing only to use vintage equipment to get that genuine twang. I loved them instantly and they are still one of my favourite bands. Despite hailing from Scandinavia, you know exactly where Sune and Sharin get their inspiration from.



The mini-album 'Whip It On' was a delight, and the full-length debut that followed the previous year - 'The Chain Gang Of Love' - was also excellent, though its lead single That Great Love Sound remains one of the best tracks of the century. (I wrote about it here.) I adored the next record, 'Pretty In Black'. The lead single Ode To L.A. didn't just sound like an authentic 60s Phil Spector-produced girl group, it actually featured Ronnie Spector of the wonderful Ronettes! My Boyfriend's Back was certainly of the same ilk and a highlight. But if it was twang you were after, it doesn't get much better than Love In A Trashcan.



Everyone seemed to *ahem* rave about the third album 'Lust Lust Lust', but it's one I've never really gotten into, probably my leave favourite Raveonettes album if I'm honest. 2009's 'In And Out Of Control' was a return to form though. The sound was still very retro, but it had developed a more modern twist. Some absolutely cracking tracks on this one, and in Last Dance, one of their poppiest songs yet.



Albums five and six ('Raven in The Grave' from 2011 and the following year's 'Observator') were both better than 'Lust Lust Lust' but didn't generate as much interest or acclaim from the critics. Neither were bad albums (The Raveonettes have never made a bad record), but to me it sounded like the band was struggling to find the sound they craved. Thankfully, they'd cracked it by 2014. 'Pe'ahi' was my album of the year and is The Raveonettes' best record to date, in my opinion. The best track is A Hell Below, but there's no video for that. Endless Sleeper's vid is most definitely not suitable for work or those suffering from epilepsy. So instead, here's Killer In The Streets. To be fair, every track from 'Pe'ahi' is worthy of gushing praise...



This year, the band is releasing an "anti-album", putting out one track a month of very different-sounding songs, then compiling them at the end of the year. The consistency you would expect from an album is not there and it's quite experimental in places, but there are some fine tunes so far, including this one which has something of an r&b vibe to it:





Soundtrack:

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Genius Of Nick Cave

#15: Loverman

Never has a love song sounded so dark and menacing - but isn't that what our Nick does best? The "L is for Love baby, O is for..." section is particularly unsettling and is what makes me think this song is not actually about a lover at all, but rather an obsessive loner stalking his victim. It's certainly not one I would have put on a mixtape for MrsRobster back in the day; it would have scared the bejeezus out of her! I love the video for this one. I'd love to know if Nick or any of the Bad Seeds really were hypnotised. Loverman was the second single released from 'Let Love In', and has since been covered by Metallica and Martin Gore (of Depeche Mode).



Footnote: The new Bad Seeds album 'Skeleton Tree' came out yesterday. I played it last night, and I have to say it is the most deeply emotional thing I have ever heard; it is absolutely heartbreaking. It actually made MrsRobster cry. No music has ever done that to her before, and I would never have believed Nick would be the one to do it. We all know he conveys emotion better than almost anyone, but this is a new level. I don't think I'll be playing 'Skeleton Tree' a great deal - it's not comfortable listening - but it's undoubtedly one of the most remarkable works of his entire career.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Memories of 2016 gigs #5

A slow start to the gig year (only four gigs in the first few months and nowt throughout the summer), but things really kick off now with a whopping 10 shows before the year is out. The first one took place on Wednesday night and provides us with a rather unique offering today - a joint album and gig review all in one!

#5: The Wedding Present
The Tramshed - 7 September 2016
Support: Such Small Hands

A six piece band, a stage festooned with fairy lights, films projected onto a backdrop, five-part male/female harmony vocals, keyboards, some Welsh-language narration, a 20-track concept album played through start to finish, a seated audience, a free printed tote bag for each punter...

"We're the Wedding Present, but a Wedding Present the likes of which you've probably never seen before." These were the first words from David Gedge's mouth, and by golly he wasn't wrong. We were already four songs in and all he'd sung to that point was a few "aaahhhhh"s! The new Wedding Present album is called 'Going, Going...' and it's fair to say it's somewhat different. So is the tour to promote it. No classics tonight, no hits - no My Favourite Dress; no Kennedy; no Interstate 5 - just 'Going, Going...' And it was fantastic!


This was billed as an audio-visual tour, something very different to anything the band had attempted before, so we knew what we weren’t going to get. As for what we would get? Well, the current four-piece line-up was augmented by two female keyboardists/singers, one of whom was the support act while the other also doubled as a second drummer at one point. If this makes it sound like Gedge was evoking the spirit of Cinerama, think again; Cinerama never made songs like this. The first four songs on ‘Going, Going...’ – and thus of the show – are post-rock instrumentals a la Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Mogwai.

The album itself is a kind of concept album - all the song titles are places in the States. Apparently, if you find them in order on a map, you get a road trip across America! Live, the running order of the tracks was altered slightly, but every one was present and correct. Each track has its own specially-filmed visual which was beamed onto a large screen at the back of the stage, and it was for that reason that Gedge took the decision to make the shows on the tour seated-only to allow the audience to immerse itself in the whole experience. For what it’s worth though, I’m not convinced they were of much benefit. I've seen similar things at other gigs before and it rarely achieves a lot. I go to gigs to see a band, not to watch a screen. I can do that at home. So as Gedge sang of another troubled relationship or the trials of everyday life, we saw images of rain, hills, bridges and trees. I live in Wales. There's lots of all of those things here - especially rain. I had hoped the films would help tell a story, but they were just a bit random and uninteresting.


That was, however, the only real downside for me. While Our Mate Colin reckoned that sitting down takes something away from the atmosphere of the audience, I and MrsRobster found that actually it allowed us to concentrate more on the band and not have to constantly crane our necks to see over the shoulders of the tall fucker who inevitably always stands in front of us wherever we are. We were also largely spared the annoyance of phones being held aloft to film segments of the show.

Musically, the band performed as well as I have ever seen them. The sound was the best I’ve heard at the Tramshed, and Gedge is certainly not mellowing in his old age. Many of the tracks are as noisy and crunchy as anything on ‘Seamonsters’, and in places surprisingly heavy too. The biggest cheers of the night went to Ten Sleep (a new moshpit-pleaser if ever there was one) and Rachel ("the best pop song you'll hear this year" according to Gedge). My personal faves were Broken Bow, Bear and Fifty-Six (which coincidentally - or not - is also David Gedge's age). Predictably, there was also a decent cheer at the announcement of the song Wales and for Gedge's Welsh-speaking mate who provides the 'vocals' (such as they are) both on the record and on stage.

In summary then, this really was the Wedding Present as we’d never seen them before. I've seen the Weddoes now about seven times. This was by far the most different show of theirs (and maybe anyone) I've seen, and in 'Going, Going...' Gedge may even have made one of his best albums to date. “It’s more like an art installation than a concert,” Gedge mused as he told us he hoped we weren’t disappointed with the show. He acknowledged it was a gamble, but I for one reckon it paid off.

MrsRobster’s verdict (of the visuals): "I kept thinking I could have filmed something better than that." She did, however, think the band were great. And she's right about the visuals - knowing her eye for a good shot and her skills with a camera, I reckon she probably could have made something more interesting.


Soundtrack:
No MP3s as the album is barely a week old. You should buy it. Instead, here’s a clip of Fifty-Six from the night itself (rather decent quality, too), some studio footage accompanying Bear, plus the official visuals for Rachel.